The concept of UC (Unified Communications) has completely failed to meet its expectations and full potential, for many years, despite many re-inventions. Unfortunately, we still use disparate tools to communicate with various people. How many communications apps (chat, text, audio, video, picture sharing, etc.) are on your mobile device? How many of those do you only use with one or two people, because that is their app of choice? As long as we need to use multiple solutions to communicate with our daily contacts, it isn’t really UC. The industry’s general answer is to substitute device interoperability for service interoperability. My app can’t talk to your app, but you can just download my app or I can just download yours, because all the apps work on all the devices.
In other words, “Virality is the new Interoperability,” as Cisco Collab CTO Jonathan Rosenberg has been quoted to say. While there is a lot of truth to that statement, I don’t completely agree. I think virality is the latest and best workaround for interoperability, but I still want real interop someday. True interoperability would remove all but one (my choice) of the apps from my devices/desktop. I would be able to initiate video with anyone, from my one master contact list, without having to choose one or another video service. I can use mine, and they can use theirs and it connects seamlessly in the background. Just like phone services do today.
With no real interop plan in sight, I must admit that virality (or at least extremely easy to use, non-intimidating, guest clients), offers an extremely bright short term future for UC platforms. It works, we are using it, and we are liking it. However, despite the success of these platforms, I am no longer impressed by one of their key features. Specifically, I question the value of the highly touted ability to know your contacts’ current availability through presence. First of all, presence does not work between platforms. Remember all those apps on your phone? When you log into your favorite one, it will only show the presence of your contacts who also use that particular solution. Second of all, even when it works, it provides limited value at best, as I will explain below.
What is Presence?
When we talk about presence, we are simply talking about that little green light next to the names on your buddy list when your contacts are online. The current generation of UC technology has been focusing on the concept of presence (Availability status), as an important feature, if not the core, of the elusive UC dream.
I was one of those who saw immense power and possibility when presence was first being added to communications platforms. I was wrong.
I was so impressed by advanced presence systems, which could not only indicate basic yes or no availability (green or red light), but could provide even more information, such as how long I have been, or expect to be, unavailable. I was wrong.
I thought I would constantly be using the power of presence to enjoy more efficient and productive communications with my own team, and be overwhelmed by countless similar stories from the user base. I was wrong.
To be clear, today’s UC platforms are great products, providing a lot of value, and most importantly, users like them. Lync wasn’t loved, but it was liked, heavily used, and it is ubiquitous due to the necessity of Office 365 (for Excel alone!). The rebrand to Skype4B doesn’t change that.
I am not saying UC is dead. I am not even saying that presence is dead. But in the real world, it doesn’t deliver as expected, and wouldn’t be missed if it went away from the common contact list. Use cases like contact centers will obviously need some sort of awareness to route calls correctly, but as far as the basic buddy list green light, I am over it.
Even among users of presence based communications platforms, presence doesn’t provide that much value. And I can easily support this position with a two letter question.
You know what that means right? “Are you there?” Isn’t that the very question presence is supposed to answer? Then why do so many of us start our IM sessions using some form of “UT”? We don’t trust it because it is broken, and worse, even it if worked it wouldn’t matter.
Presence is Broken
We ask “UT?” because we don’t trust that little green light anymore. It is barely meaningful. If its green, does that assure you an immediate response? People look away from screens and miss notifications, people walk away from their desks, and let’s face it, people pretend they are not there. It’s not necessarily personal, maybe they are working on something that is a higher priority than any of the matters they are engaged with you on. Honestly, it doesn’t matter why this happens. What matters is that it makes presence meaningless.
On the flip side, the little red light means even less. Are they not there, or are they screening? I don’t let a red light stop me. With the most current solutions I don’t even let “Offline” stop me. I get notifications on my phone from many UC solutions, even if my PC is shutdown and I am showing up as offline. Even if I believe the red light, I still go ahead and send my message so that the recipient can act on it as soon as they are online.
Even if Presence Worked, It Has Limited Value
Think of this, what difference does someone’s presence status have on your next actions in a typical communications scenario? Imagine that you need someone to review a document. If the light is green you say “UT? I am sending you a doc, please review when you can.” If the light is red, you do the EXACT SAME THING!”
Your colleague may not be available, but as soon as she is available she will log in and see the message, so you go ahead and send it anyway. What else can you do until then? Call her? If she isn’t responding to IM, why would she answer a call? She gets them both on the same device and either way she knows it is you. In fact, many of us are more likely to ignore a phone call than an IM at this point in time, because an IM is much easier to respond to.
Presence Doesn’t Help Our Real Workflow
Today’s working teams use a mix of synchronous and asynchronous communications. We have scheduled meetings for the times when we want to guarantee all hands on deck, and otherwise we catch each other when we can, and leave messages when we can’t. Presence is designed to lock people into synchronous chat, and discourage, or shut down, asynchronous messaging (red light generally means “stop”). If we really used presence correctly, we would only use UC when the light is green (for synch chat), and we would use email when the light is red (for asynch messaging). Is that efficient? Is that unified?
In order to support the modern workflow, we need a new UC paradigm that gives equal support and respect to synch and asynch messaging. In addition, it should also support group communications. Currently we use UC mostly for one on one conversations, and to set up (but not host) group meetings. A modern UC solution should support group communications, and even beyond that, group collaboration. It should also provide a persistent environment (like a virtual workspace), saving all chat, shared docs, links, and other work materials so the team can easily go back to the project and continue where they left off. It should be a virtual place where work gets done.
In other words, up till now UC has simply been a modern take on the phone call. It is, as its name suggests, a communications tool. I believe it can, and should, be much more. Rather than an upgrade from the phone, or a more immediate version of email, it should be the virtualization of the physical team workspace. It should be a place where we keep our project materials, and team members can jump in and work at their own pace, while also supporting real time communications. I believe that presence does nothing to help this dynamic. I don’t think I am alone in my feelings about presence. At the recent Enterprise Connect tradeshow I spoke with a large number of vendors, and even those that support presence, no longer promote it as such a key feature, or seem to still have the same buzz and excitement about it that presence used to enjoy.
In the second part of this series, I will discuss a feature which I am calling PTM, for Persistent Team Messaging. I will explain why I think it could be the core feature for the next generation of UC solutions. PTM is taking our space by storm, and for good reason. Please click through to read part 2 on PTM solutions, and check back soon to read the final piece in this 3 part series.